‘Failings:’ Brian Houston Just Told Us What We Already Knew About Hillsong

Patheos [Englewood CO]

March 7, 2021

By Captain Cassidy, "Roll to Disbelieve"

Hi and welcome back! Not long ago, we talked about the recent scandals erupting at Hillsong. Between Carl Lentz and his constant affairs and Bobbie Houston’s use of a slur in her creepy marriage-advice thing and even some expensive lawsuits looming, this megachurch struggles these days. Worse, a lot of accusations are coming out lately about the church’s mistreatment of volunteers and misuse of donationsHillsong is a deeply and irrevocably broken system that does exactly and precisely what pastor Brian Houston designed it to do. Recently, he even went on record to tell us so. 

Brian Houston Joins the Family Business.

According to the font of all knowledge, Brian Houston began his career as a pastor after a few years of Bible college. Bible colleges function as low-rent seminaries in far-right evangelicalism. They focus on teaching indoctrination to students, like they’re an extended and pricey Sunday School curriculum. Most skimp on or just avoid the Biblical history and criticism that one would expect of any reputable seminary.

Once Houston graduated from Bible college, he worked for his father, Frank Houston, as an assistant pastor at his church. After just a couple of years in that role, he branched out to start his own church. In fact, he started two churches and worked at a third before returning to his daddy’s church. (His father had apparently realized he was about to get hit with some sex abuse accusations and thus needed to vacate the role quickly.) So Brian Houston ran his father’s church — and also served as the National President of the Assemblies of God in Australia.

Around 2014, Brian Houston got in trouble for not reporting these accusations to the police. Instead, he decided to do a dog-and-pony-show pseudo-investigation of his father’s deeds. So he also got in trouble for what effectively represented a clear conflict of interest.

In 2018, he removed his church from his original denomination, Australian Christian Churches, to go it independently.

Why the Past of Brian Houston is Important

There’s a saying: past performance predicts future results. As Psychology Today tells us, this maxim isn’t perfect. But it holds true when patterns emerge, and especially when the person involved remains “essentially unchanged” and “fairly consistent.” It also holds true more for similar situations. (Thus, a student who skips a lot of early-morning classes in one semester will likely do it over the next semester as well.)

So I’m bringing all of this history up for a reason.

First, Brian Houston appears to have had very limited formal training (if any at all) in managing large church businesses like Hillsong. He barely had any pastoring experience at all before he was starting churches and accepting pastoral jobs. I strongly suspect that almost everything in his pastoral knowledge base comes from his daddy and from the School of Hard Knocks.

Second, Brian Houston appears to have a lot of trouble navigating conflicts of interest. When it came down to bringing justice to his father’s young sex-abuse victim or protecting his new church’s public-relations image, he chose the latter. In fact, he didn’t actually admit the truth till the law in his country forced him to do so. If that hadn’t happened, dude likely would have gone to his grave with his father’s awful secret. He continues to do damage control behind the scenes for his troubled business.

Brian Houston Knows the Recipe for Dysfunction

So we shouldn’t take what happened with Carl Lentz as some isolated weird one-off. Hillsong’s dysfunction runs deep, and it runs to the very core of the entire enterprise.

One of Hillsong NYC’s many victims, Janice Lagata, wrote back in November:

[. . .] the toxic leadership culture of Hillsong NYC was not a creation of Carl Lentz. It’s a preset of the structure. And he, unfortunately, ran with it. We all did. Through actions and through acquiescence. Because to speak up or to question was to dishonor. To not give sacrificially of your time/money/energy/talents was to be half-hearted (and fully dishonorable). And to want to be recognized, paid or promoted, was to be doing things for the wrong reasons (dishonorably). To be ungrateful. Jesus gave his all. And we would too. And lucky for us, Hillsong NYC was there to take, take, take it all. (Can you believe we get to do this?! #BESTLIFEEVER)

I’d quibble with the amount of blame Lagata should shoulder as a victim of Hillsong’s predatory organizational scheme and leaders. She was clearly deeply manipulated by abusive predators. Either way, though, she’s quite right about Hillsong’s overall global “preset of the structure.”

In fact, here is the recipe Brian Houston used to achieve that preset structure:

Inept leadership
Motivated self-interest

+ Poor organizational structure
Things going hideously wrong

*chef’s kiss*

See how easy it is?

‘Changes’ Are Coming to Hillsong.

A few days ago, Brian Houston published a memo he called “Changes.” It is a roller-coaster ride of WTF — as much for the problems at Hillsong he hints about as for his response to those problems. (Its message goes along with an earlier email called “Dear Church.” NY Post wrote about that one.)

His opening paragraph sets the tone:

To address the issues and misalignment of the culture and practices at Hillsong Church East Coast [that’s the official name of the NYC branch], we are making significant changes. [. . . W]e recognize the need to continue to strengthen infrastructure to ensure greater accountability and stability. These changes will aim to address the lapses that have affected the culture of our East Coast campuses, and prevent the strong policies, that we do have in place globally from being ignored.

To me, this paragraph indicates that Hillsong is deeply troubled. It has poor “infrastructure.” This flaw leads to a lack of “accountability and stability.” Worse, staff “ignore” whatever rules Houston has in place now.

Worse still, Houston only insists now, years after starting Hillsong, that everyone must follow the rules.

Yikes. Just yikes.

An Inept Response to Scandal.

In this “Changes” memo, Brian Houston sets forth eight listicle items that he says Hillsong will implement to prevent future scandals. None of them will, however. He begins with this truly WTF assertion:

1. Additional training for staff and volunteers intended to increase awareness of the specific types of power dynamics that often arise in a church setting 

Power dynamics are inherent in any organization with a leadership structure, volunteers, and team members who have supervisory responsibilities. This is especially true in a ministry environment. The responsibility falls to leaders to understand the significance of the position they hold in the lives of others and to use that position as Jesus did, not to be served but to serve.

His first error right out of the gate is his moral leveling. It’s like he’s saying:

Yes, I mean sure, we do totally have a serious problem with dysfunctional power dynamics. Doesn’t EVERYBODY? The Big Problem Here is that our leaders aren’t Jesus-ing hard enough. Once they’re Jesus-ing correctly, they won’t abuse their volunteers so much.

Jesus-ing harder really is the go-to for fundagelical leaders!

So WTF I’m Having Trouble Finding Words.

That opening is so ludicrous that I am gobsmacked. I’m having trouble reaching for words here. It’s mind-bogglingly inept. He might as well have just punted to sin nature and gone back to ignoring the problem.

No, not everybody has trouble like Hillsong does. However, one might excuse Brian Houston for not realizing that the one church he’s served for almost all of his adult life isn’t actually the end-all, be-all of all churches forever. When all you have is a Hillsong, then every problem starts looking like a Hillsong scandal.

No, most businesses somehow manage to avoid completely abusing their staff and volunteers. The solution isn’t Jesus-ing harder. Rather, it requires the instituting of strong, strict behavioral rules, then ensuring that the business contains no secret places where it can happen anyway, and then it needs a management system designed from the ground up to notice and counter rulebreaking at any level.

The whole listicle is like this. Every item on it could be countered by a simple, “Or else what, asshat?” Hillsong already had a list of rules. The powerful people of the business simply ignored them.

Thus, I see no reason why they won’t continue to ignore everything in this listicle. Shaming predators won’t improve anything. After all, they have no shame.

The Reaction I Was Hoping For.

After the NY Post wrote up Brian Houston’s proposed changes (relink to story), I was pleased to see that the people Hillsong’s leaders have hurt in New York don’t seem all that convinced.

All too often, fundagelicals don’t think critically about their leaders’ not-pologies and refusal to set things right. We’re seeing that happen in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Their leaders make the bare minimum of mouth-noises about abuse scandals. In response, their flocks express overwhelming relief. Once their leaders are in the clear again, the matter closes then and there. Nobody demands action or accountability over the long term.

Thankfully, I’m not seeing that pattern so much with Hillsong.

In that NY Post story, one former Hillsong NYC member, the previously-mentioned Janice Lagata, flat-out called Brian Houston’s apologies “hilarious” and “brilliant p.r. bulls–t.” Another member said people are “just kind of rolling their eyes” and are “just tired.”

Part of me wonders if this blowback is happening because of the New York City location. I wonder how Hillsong members and victims would be reacting if Carl Lentz had set his church in a town in the Deep South instead. Either way, it’s nice to see.

Brian Houston himself may have realized that he’s hit the end of the line with this scheme. He’s apparently pulling away from pastoring soon. But that won’t fix the broken system he designed. It’ll just put new leaders at the top of the system.

You Can’t Fix a Broken System.

I define a broken system as one that can no longer (and maybe never did) fulfill its own stated goals. Instead, its leaders seek to fulfill unstated, covert goals of their own. Often, these goals revolve around gaining power over others and enjoying the fruits of the labor of the group’s followers.

We see a lot of both happening in Hillsong and in the story of Brian Houston.

And y’all, a broken system simply can’t be fixed. Brian Houston designed his religious empire from the ground up to serve his interests. The people in paid roles in that empire got there not through qualifications and talent but through their personal connections to him. (Carl Lentz, for example, became the bestie of Brian Houston’s son Joel at Hillsong College. Carl’s wife Laura just so happens to be the daughter of longtime family friends of Brian and Bobbie Houston. Also, all three of Houston’s children work for Hillsong in top roles.)

So the leaders of broken systems don’t tend to want anything to change.

The followers of the system sure can’t change it. Over time, the leaders of these systems carefully, systematically strip all such power from the rank-and-file.

I see no signs that Brian Houston even wants anything to change dramatically, however. Like his peers over at the SBC, he clearly just wants his gravy train to keep running till he’s finally ready to retire for good. Then it can collapse.

I’m just glad that it seems like very few of his NYC victims are buyin’ what he’s sellin’.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then: The problem with Hillsong had nothing to do with its megachurch status. The many Christians making this accusation are completely missing the point.